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italicissima is dedicated to real Italian language as it appears in contemporary literature. Here you’ll find a quarterly post on a novel of literary and linguistic interest and, whenever possible, a language-themed interview with the author. What you won’t find are books written exclusively in standard Italian (i.e., the language of textbooks and classical literature), especially the ones they teach you in school.


In Other Words (In altre parole)

in-other-wordsJhumpa Lahiri (London, 1967) describes In Other Words (In altre parole) (Knopf, 2016) as an “autobiografia linguistica, un autoritratto (linguistic autobiography, a self-portrait).” This dual-language book, originally written in Italian (Guanda, 2015), is a product of Lahiri’s complex linguistic background and, as such, represents an exploration of identity as it relates to language and the desire to create.

Lahiri learned Bengali from her parents as a child in London, and she began learning English at the age of four when she started school in the United States. She couldn’t identify with either language, however, because she felt that one was forced on her by family and the other by necessity. During a trip to Italy at the age of twenty-five, she decided to adopt Italian as her language—of choice.

She studied Italian for years with a tutor in Brooklyn. But after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her literary debut, Interpreter of Maladies (2000), fame took a toll on her writing, and she decided to move to Italy to study the language in situ. She explains that Italian is both liberating and confining for her—confining because she will never be truly fluent, but liberating because it gives her “la libertà di essere imperfetta (the freedom to be imperfect).”

With In Other Words (In altre parole), Lahiri describes her learning process through word lists, reading notes, personal anecdotes, and short stories. Although she still defines herself as “una scrittrice che non appartiene del tutto a nessuna lingua (a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language),” she concludes that while Bengali and English are her past and present, respectively, Italian might be “una nuova stradina nel futuro (a new road into the future).”

LISTS OF WORDS
imbambolato (Eng. dazed)
sbilenco (Eng. lopsided)
incrinatura (Eng. crack)
capezzale (Eng. bedside, bolster)
sghangherato (Eng. unhinged)
scorbutico (Eng. crabby)
barcollare (Eng. sway)
bisticciare (Eng. bicker)

Faccio un elenco di termini da controllare, da imparare. Imbambolato, sbilenco, incrinatura, capezzale. Sghangherato, scorbutico, barcollare, bisticciare.
(I make a list of terms to look up, to learn. Dazed, lopsided, crack, bedside or bolster. Unhinged, crabby, sway, bicker.)

INTRIGUING WORDS
claustrale (Eng. cloistered)

Talvolta una parola può suscitare una reazione bizzarra. Un giorno, per esempio, scopro il termine claustrale. Posso azzardare il significato ma vorrei esserne certa. Mi trovo sul treno. Controllo il dizionario tascabile. La parola non c’è. Sono all’improvviso presa, stregata da questa parola.
(Sometimes a word can provoke a bizarre reaction. One day, for example, I discover the word claustrale (cloistered). I can guess the meaning, but I would like to be sure. I’m on a train. I check the pocket dictionary. The word isn’t there. Suddenly I’m enthralled, bewitched by this word.)

UNTRANSLATABLE WORDS
formicolare (Eng. to move in a confused manner, like ants)
chiarore (Eng. shaft of light)

Raccolgo delle belle parole che non hanno equivalenti in inglese (formicolare, chiarore).
(I gather beautiful words that have no direct equivalents in English [formicolare, chiarore: to move in a confused manner, like ants; shaft of light].)

COMMON ADJECTIVES
malmesso (Eng. shabby)
plumbeo (Eng. leaden)
impiastricciato (Eng. smeared)

Raccolgo una valanga di aggettivi (malmesso, plumbeo, impiastricciato) per descrivere una migliaia di situazioni.
(I gather countless adjectives (malmesso, plumbeo, impiastricciato: shabby, leaden, smeared) to describe thousands of situations.)

FORGETTABLE WORDS
fruscio (Eng. rustle)
schianto (Eng. crash)
arguto (Eng. sharp)
broncio (Eng. sulk)

Rileggendo il taccuino, mi rendo conto di certe parole che devo scrivere più di una volta, che resistono alla mia memoria. Semplici ma ostinate (fruscio, schianto, arguto, broncio) forse non vogliono avere alcun rapporto con me.
(Rereading the notebook, I notice certain words that I have to write more than once, that resist my memory. Simple but stubborn [fruscio, schianto, arguto, broncio: rustle, crash, sharp, sulk] maybe they don’t want to have a relationship with me.)

TRICKY VERBS
era (imperfect; Eng. it was)
è stato (simple past; Eng. it has been)

Mi confondo soprattutto tra era ed è stato: due facce del verbo essere, quello fondamentale.
(I’m especially confused by era [it was] and è state [it has been]: two faces of the verb essere (to be), a fundamental verb.)

SYNONYMS
accantonare (Eng. to set aside)
rinviare (Eng. to postpone)
sospendere (Eng. to suspend)

Ormai quando incontro una parola sconosciuta conosco già un paio di termini, sempre in italiano, per esprimere la stessa cosa. Per esempio, di ricente ho imparato accantonare, conoscendo già rinviare e sospendere.
(Now when I encounter an unfamiliar word in Italian I already know several terms, also in Italian, to express the same thing. For example, I recently learned accantonare [to set aside], already knowing rinviare and sospendere.)

QUOTES ON LANGUAGE
Antonio Tabucchi
. . . avevo bisogno di una lingua differente: una lingua che fosse un luogo di affetto e di riflessione.
(. . . I needed a different language: a language that was a place of affection and reflection.)

Domenico Starnone
Una lingua nuova è quasi una vita nuova, grammatica e sintassi ti rifondono, scivoli dentro un’altra logica e un altro sentimento.
(A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility.)

Jhumpa Lahiri
Un lessico cercato, acquisito, resta per sempre anomalo, come se fosse artefatto, anche se non lo è.
(A vocabulary that is sought after, acquired, remains forever anomalous, as if it were counterfeit, even though it’s not.)

NOTE: For creative reasons, Lahiri did not translate In altre parole into English. The English translation of the text is the work of Ann Goldstein, an accomplished translator and editor at The New Yorker. With few exceptions, the translations in this post are those of Ms. Goldstein.